Friday, May 20, 2011

The Natural Law: Too Strict for Janet Smith?


Janet Smith, a well-known, 'conservative' moral theologian, recently published a scandalous article in First Things (June-July 2011 issue), where she tries to justify, in certain cases, the intrinsically immoral act of lying.   Smith rashly entitled her article: "Fig Leaves and Falsehoods: Pace Thomas Aquinas, Sometimes We Need to Deceive." Much worse and more heterodox theses have been proposed by theologians in the last fifty years, but this one is particularly scandalous because it comes from a woman whose  moral teaching had been considered trustworthy by conservative Catholics for decades.  It is also scandalous due to her being a professor at a major seminary.

And hers is not simply an innocent theological mistake.  She acknowledges that she is rejecting the teaching, not only of St. Thomas, but of the whole theological tradition and of the Magisterium of the Church (she even cites the new Catechism), namely, that lying is intrinsically wrong and, thus, can never be justified.  In particular, the Church teaches that the end does not justify the means; it is for this reason that lying for a good end is never justified.  We would not be surprised if this were just another forgotten traditional Catholic teaching of decades past that had been buried together with all other things pre-conciliar: but it is a standard moral doctrine of the "current" Magisteirum, found the teaching of even the recent popes, John Paul II in particular (in Veritatis splendor, for example), something that even the most "moderate" of Catholics would expect her to respect.

So Smith rejects this doctrine while being fully aware that it is the teaching of the Church, and still, she pretends that all is good and that she is not stepping outside of the bounds of orthodoxy.  Not only that, but those of us who disagree with her are automatically "rigorists."  She calls Aquinas a rigorist, but by extension it follows that everyone else, all Catholic moral theologians and ethicists,  Popes, Bishops, confessors, the faithful, even saints, were rigorists.  (Before 1960 she would have been reprimanded by the Church--and rightly so.)

She ends the article by saying:

It is with trepidation and, I hope, with due humility that I disagree with Aquinas and go on record as defending a practice that many moralists I respect think always wrong. Nonetheless, I also respect the practices of cultures, the intuitions of nearly everyone, and what seems to me to be sound reasoning about the postlapsarian nature of signification.

Seemingly in her mind, the intuitions of (post-Englightenment) cultures and the reasoning of (mostly utilitarian) contemporary moral theologians outweigh the authority of the Church and the consensus of the approved Catholic theologians throughout history.  She acknowledges that she is being theologically audacious, but justifies herself by saying that she is doing so with humility. 

See the interesting comments posted at Rorate Caeli regarding mental reservations.



Geremia said...

The problem is her jabs at St. Thomas: she seems to misinterpret him, claims he is wrong, then advances her own supposedly more correct view.

She does not believe all lies, including white and jocose ones, are at least a venial sin, which is a problem. If she did, she would be forced to say one is bound to sin in certain situations, which is even more problematic.

Anonymous said...

I am not disagreeing with you, but I do feel there are real difficulties here that should be addressed.

In particular, I am curious why, if there are instances in which killing is not murder or taking is not stealing, it is not possible for there to be instances when false signification is not lying. Also, her point that not all language is used to directly convey the truth. I do not see how we can deny this without condemning novels and all other storytelling. Aside from these theoretical difficulties, I would also be interested to see a practical recommendation for someone in a position such as hiding jews from nazis or otherwise saving lives by deceiving someone who seeks to do evil.

The consensus of tradition is enough for me to reject the conclusion of these arguments, but there are real difficulties here that I do not think I have seen addressed with a thorough and rational response. I doubt many people will be interested in traditional answers if their legitimate concerns are not addressed.

gregg said...

Can you comment on Newman's survey of the issue in the Apologia? It seems to pretty conclusively show that the issue is not settled among moral theologians, and I'm not sure much has changed since the Apologia's writing and now.

gregg said...

Can you comment on Newman's survey of the issue in the Apologia? It seems to pretty conclusively show that the issue is not settled among moral theologians, and I'm not sure much has changed since the Apologia's writing and now.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ite ad Thomam,

I would be very interested in your take on Dr Peter Kreeft's article on the subject of Lila Rose's lying to planned parenthood.

Here is the Link

God Bless and Thank you


MaestroJMC said...

@ The first Anonymous:

Given that Aquinas' belief that the purpose of language is to communicate what is in the mind, it follows that lying is intrinsically wrong. Thus, when we compare the case to that of killing and murder, just as killing is not intrinsically wrong, but murder is, so also is deception not intrinsically wrong, but lying is.

With regard to the Nazi case, one could always use a broad mental reservation (to be distinguished from a strict mental reservation). A broad mental reservation is an utterance in which one's words could possibly be interpreted as one way, but really intended to mean something else. Thus, one could say to the Nazis, "There are no *damned* Jews here", or something similar. On the other hand, one could not use a strict mental reservation, which is essentially saying something which is false, but, say, mentally saying something else which clarifies one's true meaning. Thus, one could not say to the Nazis "There are no Jews in this house" and then say mentally, "actually, I'm only telling you this because you have no right to know whether there are Jews here or not"... or something similar. Strict mental reservations, if I recall, have been explicitly condemned by one of the Popes... I don't remember which.

Also, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that the purpose of language is to communicate truth that novels and fairy tales etc. are automatically to be condemned. J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of "Middle Earth" and author the well known trilogy, "Lord of the Rings", often pointed out that the purpose of fairy tales and such is, in fact, to communicate the truth, but through the means of symbolism and the like.

Hope this helps. Perhaps you've heard it all before... if so, sorry to repeat it all again.

Anonymous said...

Peter says: I was very sad to read Miss Smith's article in "First Things". She is not adequately trained in moral theology and clearly misunderstands St. Thomas' argument. She does not seem to understand how the principle of double effect applies in self-defense, and why it could not possibly apply to cases of lying. She seems to misunderstand that the form of lying is to make an assertion contrary to one's own belief, and that this form makes it intrinsically evil before AND after the Fall. Given her beliefs, given that she even justifies lying in trivial cases, I would never trust her to be honest with me, nor would I trust her analysis of any moral principle. Given how easily she casts off the thought of St. Thomas, despite her lack of wisdom and simple failure to understand his doctrine, I do not trust her judgement. If she is orthodox on any matter, it seems simply by chance. How sad!

James Bellisario said...

Smith is now proven to be an illiterate when it comes to classical Thomism. I would not put much stock in Newman either since he also was a lightweight when it came to Saint Thomas. The fact is, Smith is wrong and has proven that she is not deeply familiar with Saint Thomas' work. She doesn't even understand the nature of punishment. All killing is not wrong, hence the authority of the state to take guilty life. It is not the same as lying, which is always wrong. Again, people need to understand the nature of an act before they get on their high horses and start claiming that St. Thomas was not consistent. Hopefully some of the real Thomistic scholars like Fr. Cessario or Dr. Long will speak up and refute her work.

Anonymous said...

Exodus 20

Dan said...

She also is a great defender of the idiotic "theology of the body", one of John Paul II's more bizarre ideas. I can only look upon her views with extreme caution.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Romero,

Would you care to comment on the ongoing debate on Sandro Magister's site over Vatican II. Here is the latest intervention, which has links to the beginnings of the debate:

Unknown said...

Janet Smith denies Virginity in Birth

Janet Smith responds to Alice von Hildebrand’s critique of Christopher West
Lima, Peru, Oct 22, 2010 / 01:04 am (CNA).-
Smith also discussed the debate surrounding whether or not dwelling on the details of Christ’s birth displays an inordinate curiosity.
“Von Hildebrand’s response to West’s likening the birth of his son to the birth of Jesus is curious. She believes it is incorrect to think that Mary may have expelled a bloody placenta. Pregnant wombs have placentas,” Smith wrote. “Did not Mary’s? Would it be wrong to think it might have been bloody? Christ’s body was covered with blood when he died, was it not? Scripture itself makes reference to Mary’s womb and breasts; is the placenta really so objectionable that it could not be mentioned?
· Louis Tofari 1 comment collapsed CollapseExpand
Our Lady did not expel a placenta; the Virgin Birth (hence, no blood) was miraculous and did not take place in the normal manner. Such has been related by numerous saintly writers and theologians.
Replying to Louis Tofari

Dear Mr.Tofari,

The "virginitas in partu" (virginity in giving birth) is not just a "pious tradition" is a Catholic Dogma "de fide divina et catholica" - which must be believed by "Divine and Catholic faith," infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium; whose denial on the part of Janet Smith is therefore - formally heretical and presumably malicious: she cannot be excused on account of ignorance. The specific contents of this Catholic dogma are as follows: non-rupture of the physical virginal integrity (I omit the biological term "ex reverentiam"); the absence of labor pains; AND...the "sine sordibus" - the absence of the biological accidents of natural birth: placenta, umbilical cord, etc. Janet Smith's blasphemous expression, "...pregnant women (sic-!) have placentas," just indicates her degree of hatred for Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Most Holy and Immaculate Mother...[cf., Pius XII, in Mystici Corporis: " was a miraculous birth." Vatican II: "..whose birth not only did not diminish his Mother's virginal integrity, but augmented it;" repeated by John Paul II in his catechetical and Marian discourses...]

Geremia said...

@Carlo Grillo: How does St. Mary's having a placenta or "bloody birth" make her not a virgin? This is absurd. Her virginal bodily and spiritual integrity was miraculously preserved.

Unknown said...

The so-called "bloody birth" and placenta is contrary to the Divine dignity of the Son as well as the dignity of the Divine Maternity - see any Dogmatic theology manual by "auctores probati." You are using your own human reason to deny the specific contents of this dogma...I appeal to the modeator of the website to clarify this by means of the clear teaching of Saint Thomas, the Magisterium, and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church...